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I Found Milton Avery — by Mark Barry

Milton AveryAlthough he was never lost to me, I have learned a lot of biographical information about Milton Avery (image at right) that I didn't know before from the exhibit Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (through May 16). For one, how much he struggled as an artist with both his art and his finances, and how important the support of his wife Sally and daughter March were to him. For all the attention his work gets these days, it wasn't so throughout his career. This exhibit focuses on his two primary collectors: first came friend and patron Louis Kaufman and then Duncan Phillips, who gave Avery his first museum exhibit. (For more information, see the piece on Kaufman and Avery broadcast by NPR on Thursday.)

What I enjoyed most was the chance to see a progression of work, starting with Winter Riders (c. 1925, the first Avery painting purchased by Duncan Phillips), which has an impressionist feel to it, possibly Degas, to the three still lifes of 1928, of which Still Life With Pop Bottle has a Picassoesque, early cubist sensibility, while Still Life with Iron, Plant, and Bananas is all Matisse. My favorite of this period is the beautiful portrait Sally Avery with Still Life. It reminded me of Honoré Daumier’s linear quality, but the more I looked there was the strength of a John Singer Sargent portrait, a grand picture of a simple woman.

From the late 20s through the mid 30s Avery was finding his personal voice. By his 1938 self-portrait Milton Avery in a Grey Shirt with "The Chariot Race" he had arrived. Here is a confident man: the image of the chariot in the background makes him look a bit devilish, and the paint is his own unmistakable style. Contrast this portrait with The Convalescent (self-portrait in a red sweater from 1949), painted after his first heart attack. It's a chillingly honest picture of a man confronting his mortality, with turquoise eyes peering out of a ghostly white mask. However, I can tell this is not a man ready to quit: his brilliant red shirt and wiry golden hair say, I'm still here.

This bold new style is evident in the simplified shapes of Girl Writing and broad planes of color in Chinese Checkers (c. 1941). The same boldness serves Avery well in his landscapes. Nature is dominant in Shells and Fishermen: an undulating blue sea and sky approach as one, while a somewhat ominous ledge threatens to gobble up the two unsuspecting fishermen; even the shells in the foreground are their equal. In Bird and Breaking Wave, a small bird is perched on a rock, surounded by a dark purple sea. Billowing waves are about to come crashing down, but the bird somehow feels safe on its fleshy perch; there is redemption. Man and nature are one in California Landscape, as the warm golden shore embraces a pale green sea and sky, very Japanese.

One room is dedicated to notebook entries, dry-point etchings such as Reclining Nude or Rothko with Pipe, monoprints, and woodblock prints. Avery was quite prolific, constantly drawing portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, always searching: it sure inspired me to get to work.

The last gallery is saved for large canvases that were painted in the late 50s and early 60s. Grey Rocks, Black Sea (1957) and Rolling Surf (1958) are as abstract as he gets, the essence of his quest for the pure shape and weight of color, and again in Pink Meadow (1963) with that wonderful blue blob, a precurser to Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney. These large canvases are a tightrope walk: to pare the image down to the essential is a huge challenge. For example, the black brushstrokes in Rock and Wave (1959) don't hold: they're too haphazard, and every stroke has to count. There is success in this room, but I can't help but think of his protégé Mark Rothko. When it comes to the size, shape, and weight of color in a minimalist format, he is more successful. It's also a bit unfair, since the period around 1950 is Rothko's prime and toward the end of Avery's career. But, then again, without the influence of Milton Avery where would Rothko have been?

Mark Barry ( is an artist working in Baltimore.

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